Lady Bird

November 19, 2017 at 7:29 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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Almost to the day a year ago, I saw a film very similar to this one. That film, “The Edge of Seventeen,” was a real delight, full of honesty and insight. “Lady Bird” made me feel very much the same way. The film is written and directed by Greta Gerwig, who has acted in “20th Century Women,” “Francis Ha,” and “Jackie,” among others. Gerwig’s film is set in 2002 and focuses on a 17 year-old girl’s last year of high school. Gerwig herself would have been 19 in 2002 and so much of the film felt so real that I wonder if she was writing from her own experience. Lady Bird, played beautifully by Saoirse Ronan, feels like a fish out of water. She believes she is too clever for the everyday life she has to put up with. Meanwhile, her overly anxious mother (Laurie Metcalf of “Roseanne” fame) stumbles over how to communicate with her daughter. This world is also occupied with a host of others: kindly father, nerdy best friend, cruel & shallow cute boy, etc. But the real focus of the film is this mother/daughter relationship. Fortunately, both Ronan and Metcalf are excellent actors. They create deeply sympathetic, flawed and funny characters. The end result is a story that feels utterly believable. The kids all act and think just like kids. This relationship between parent and child felt as frustrating and as powerful as a real relationship. This was a simple story about a critical moment in a girl’s life; she’s struggling with what it means to become a woman and to face an uncertain future. There were no shocking twists or garish surprises. Just a regular girl trying to figure out her life out. I found that struggle to be funny, insightful and touching.

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God’s Own Country

November 12, 2017 at 4:51 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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I must confess that, by the end of the 1990’s, I felt like I had seen my share of young-men-falling-in-love films. Most of them follow a formula that I have gotten pretty used to. So, I wouldn’t have bothered with this one if a friend had not wanted to see it. I’m glad he did. Set in Northern England, the film follows Johnny (Josh O’Connor) as he tries to tend to his parents’ farm. His father has had a stroke and Johnny must do most of the work by himself. He’s depressed and sullen and drinks way too much. His parents hire Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), a farmhand from Romania, who Johnny initially resents but slowly grows attached to. Both men play their emotional cards very close to the chest. In fact, nobody hardly says much of anything in this film; these men make Ennis and Jack from “Brokeback Mountain” seem verbose. Which may be for the better as, when Johnny does speak, I can hardly understand a word of what he is saying. In fact, the Romanian was the easiest person to understand in the entire film. This is a slow moving film and I was slow to warm up to it. I had a hard time connecting to the characters early on, partly because of my difficulty understanding the dialogue. And the sex that did occur seemed rough, uncaring and cold. But the film really grew on me. Johnny’s entire world was rough and cold. As his relationship with Gheorghe developed, he also developed as a character. By the end of the film, and particularly in it’s last act, I was genuinely moved. There was some fantastic acting here, particularly when these rough men were trying to share complicated feelings. It made every fleeting moment of intimacy feel well earned. In particular, I was impressed with Ian Hart (“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”) as Johnny’s father. He was terrific as a man who was never comfortable with his emotions and was now even more restricted by his stroke. I thought his last scene with Johnny was fantastic. Under the surface, these people have deep passion and need. Because it is so contained throughout the film, even the slightest signs of it feel deeply rewarding. There is a tough, cold, brutality on the surface of this film. You can see it in the harsh lighting, the frozen landscape, the lives and deaths of the animals, the looks on people’s faces. But, stick with it long enough, and you will also discover real warmth, humor, tenderness and even love. The film will make you work for those emotions but, when they show up, you’ll be glad you waited.

Victoria & Abdul

November 5, 2017 at 5:43 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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1887, for her 50th year on the throne, Queen Victoria asked for two servants to be sent from India to serve her during her Silver Jubilee celebration. One of them, Abdul Karim, became her confidante and closest friend for the last decade of her life. After her death, the royal family was so scandalized by the relationship that they tried to wipe all evidence of it from the historical record. Thus it remained for 100 years until a scholar visiting a remote estate belonging to the royal family, came across a painting and bust of him. She did research that lead her to a still intact journal of Victoria’s written in Urdu (still intact because nobody in the royal estate knew what it said) and, eventually, to Karim’s own journals that had been kept by his last living relative in India. That scholar, Shrabani Basu, wrote the book that this movie is based on. Its a touching story about how alienating power can be and of how, even a queen, just wants to be treated like a person. Director Stephen Frears (“Dangerous Liaisons,” “High Fidelity,” “The Queen,” “Philomena”) takes every scrap of information he has to work with and gets it into the film somehow. The problem is that the information we have on their relationship is scarce. It is based largely on Karim’s journals and a few snippets of Victoria’s writing. The end result is a very unbalanced portrayal of Karim as an almost heroic figure and the royal household as a collection of bigoted, jealous fools. That may have been the case but it makes for a rather boring film, without much depth of character. Some complexities in Karim’s character are hinted at, like the possibility he was a chronic liar, but they were never explored. He was allowed to remain a sort of savior figure throughout the film. The end result was a story that was more melodrama than drama. It was hard for me to feel any connection to these characters because I kept second guessing how real they were. It’s a shame because there is an interesting story there about class, race, duty, faith, love and many other complex things. I just wish this film had gone a little deeper than the shiny surface we got to see.

The Florida Project

November 3, 2017 at 12:18 pm | Posted in 2017 | 1 Comment
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Two years ago, Sean Baker exploded onto the big screen with his first full-length feature film, “Tangerine” (see my review here). In case we were wont to think this was a one-time fluke, Baker ups his game and comes with an even stronger sophomore effort. Taking place in and around a couple of motels near Disney World, “The Florida Project” takes us inside a world in much the same way “Tangerine” did. Here, we experience life through a group of 7 year olds being raised by single mothers scraping to get by. Baker has such an affection for America’s disenfranchised; he shows us their resilience with great empathy and humor. Taking place in the the first few weeks of summer break, the film chiefly follows Moonee (Brooklyn Prince) and the various other children that orbit her as she goes about entertaining herself as a dirt poor, wholly unsupervised, child. Moonee and her friends are watched over by the gentle Bobby (Willem Dafoe), who is the manager of the motel where she lives. We also see her relationship with her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite). Halley is immature and poorly equipped to handle the role of parenting anyone, including herself, but she is still a loving mother and, through Baker’s lens, she’s impossible not to empathize with. The real miracle of this film is in the acting by this group of almost entirely untrained actors. Vinaite is powerful as Moonee’s mother, though this is her first film. She is raw and her emotions play so easily across the surface that I am tempted to believe she has actually lived the experiences she is portraying. This was a large cast of so many younger and older actors, and each of them seemed to genuinely inhabit their characters. This was nowhere more true that with our lead actress. Prince was astonishing. In a fair world, she would be considered for an Oscar nomination. For her to inhabit this character so fully was amazing for a child so young. She was loud, brash, sarcastic, charming, silly, playful, and demanding in all the right ways. At one point, she wept so painfully that I felt as though this young girl must really be sad and scared. I believed in Moonee fully. In so many places, this film felt as though it were a documentary. That is how real these kids and their behaviors seemed. This is a very funny, joyful film but it will also break your heart. Underneath the bright pink exterior, there is deep pain, with only more to come. This movie will make you laugh and, in its final moments, it will leave you stunned, sitting in a dark theater, trying to process what you just witnessed.

Wonderstruck

October 29, 2017 at 7:16 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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I first heard of Todd Haynes in the very early 90s. His college film project “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story” was famous. You can find the entire short film here and it is well worth watching. He was also part of the New Queer Cinema movement with 1991’s “Poison,” and has followed that one with multiple period pieces that look at repressed sexuality (“Velvet Goldmine,” “Far From Heaven,” “Carol”). He knows how to create the mood and feel of a particular place in time. Though this film has not got a drop of any sexuality in it, it definitely has that same sense of place. This is a story in two parts. The first takes place in 1927 as a 12 year old girl arrives alone to New York City. The second part takes place 50 years later, in 1977, as a 12 year old boy does the same thing. These stories weave back and forth as the two kids’ lives parallel each other. The film was at its best when it was comparing those two worlds. Haynes did a masterful job of creating two different versions of the same city and both felt truly authentic. In particular, I loved the scenes shot in the Natural History Museum. I would have loved those scenes to have been a much larger part of the film. It might have derailed what plot there was but, truth be told, there really wasn’t much plot to begin with. In fact, the story line felt like the weakest part of the film. As the story focused on characters who are deaf, there was a great deal of silence and very little speaking. It was incredibly effective and gave the film an introspective, almost poetic, feel. However, that silence also meant that the importance of any dialogue was magnified. Here, more than in most of his other films, Haynes gets sentimental and a bit maudlin. As a result, the story stumbles a bit in the final scenes. It was at its best when it was focused on two kids, half a century a part, learning about the world. If he had stayed there, Haynes would have given us a moodier, more cryptic but, perhaps more moving, film. This one had its moments, but its adherence to a narrative arc robbed it of its energy. In the end, Haynes traded the beautiful mystery for sentiment.

Lucky

October 15, 2017 at 7:31 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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This film follows in a long and venerable line of films that feature an elderly person on some journey. They are typically beautifully shot, languid films that act as a showcase for an older actor who has never been the lead before. The first film that I know of in this series, and perhaps the one I loved the most (I saw it multiple times while it was still in the theater) was 1985’s “The Trip to Bountiful,” starring Geraldine Page. Between then and now, we have also seen “Driving Miss Daisy” (1989), “The Straight Story” (1999), “Nebraska” (2013), and probably others that I don’t remember. They typically center on an older person taking some sort of quixotic journey and the people they meet along the way. Here, Harry Dean Stanton’s eponymous Lucky just hangs around his Arizona time pondering mortality. Perhaps that is why this film did not connect for me the way those other ones did; it just felt like it was going nowhere. Lucky is much like the turtle “Franklin Roosevelt” that ambles along at the beginning and end of the movie, reinforcing it’s incredibly slow pace. Lucky has nowhere to go and is in no hurry at all. Stanton, who died just a few weeks ago, was 89 when he made the movie and it really focuses on death and how one wants to live out one’s remaining days. Which is not to say that it is depressing. It has real moments of humor and exuberance, as when Lucky sings at a young boy’s party. But it is deeply nostalgic, with everyone reminiscing about a simpler time. Even the turtle’s name is a nod to the past. The film was beautifully shot and was, at times, moving. But, overall, it lacked any direction and I think I needed that.

Columbus

October 9, 2017 at 10:50 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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And so, for Columbus Day, I give you “Columbus.” They have absolutely nothing to do with each other but, oh well. I couldn’t resist. If you are going to watch this film, then you must be prepared to see it. This is a film for seeing more than listening. It is slow and quiet and graceful and beautiful. It’s filmed entirely in Columbus, Indiana, which is apparently a mecca for modernist buildings. Who knew? The story is about a young librarian named Casey, played by Haley Lu Richardson (“Split,” “The Edge of Seventeen”) and a literary translator named Jin, played by John Cho (the “Star Trek” and “Harold & Kumar” movies). They meet and walk around Columbus looking at beautiful architecture, while only tangentially talking about anything other than architecture. But don’t think that there isn’t anything going on here. This is a film about symmetry and dissymmetry and all sorts of things being slightly misaligned. Every single scene is so beautifully constructed, with so many of them gorgeously symmetrical and some of them having just slightly skewed symmetry, much like Casey and Jin. Both work with books but in different ways. He has come to Columbus to care for a father he does not want to care for. She cannot stop caring for a mother that nobody wants her to care for. The whole film is like this but all of it is at a distance. The fantastic cast of actors play their characters very low key, even when strong emotions are present. The film feels like much more of an intellectual pursuit. In fact, in one fascinating scene, Casey is talking about why she likes a particular building. Jin accuses her of sounding like a tour guide. This is a clever joke, because the whole film feels a bit tour-guidey. Casey tries again but Jin pushes her to go deeper. She finally says that the building moves her. Jin gets excited and wants to know how it moves her and she begins to tell him. And we are suddenly shifted inside the building. We are now watching Casey’s animated explanation through glass and cannot hear a single word. First time director, Kogonada, has removed the audience from any emotional connection with the film. That is a very interesting choice. We are clearly just meant to be observers of an intellectual process of understanding. Characters do grow and move, especially in relationship to each other, but more as part of a landscape than as people. In the end, the human characters seem no more (or less) important than the buildings around them. They are all part of some larger symmetry. I found that beautiful but not particularly moving. I’m not saying that I want to film to be different from what it was. I think it works exactly the way it should and I think it’s an interesting way to tell a story. I did really really like it. I just didn’t love it.

Mother!

September 22, 2017 at 11:19 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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I saw this film almost a week ago and I have been sitting on my review because I just wasn’t sure how I felt. Reviewers have been wildly divided; the film has a 74% on Metacritic, not because most people thought it was just okay, but because the majority either really loved it or really hated it. “Mother!” has also gotten the alt-right up in arms, screaming about sacrilege and how much they hate Jennifer Lawrence. And Britain’s The Guardian called it the most controversial movie since “The Clockwork Orange.” That’s a lot of emotion for a so-called “horror” film. But, I will admit that I left the film feeling pretty divided myself. In the end, I think this is a film that deserves multiple viewings. Darren Aronofsky (the brilliant director of “Pi,” “Requiem for a Dream,” “The Wrestler,” and “Black Swan”) has proven himself to be unafraid of complex symbolism and bizarre imagery and this film dives more deeply into both of those areas than any film he has made to date. On the surface, the film is about how the titular character’s (Jennifer Lawrence) life is disrupted when her husband (Javier Bardem) starts letting people into their home. But little in this movie makes any sense on the surface. It is clearly all an allegory, but for what? If you believe Aronofsky and Lawrence (and, I guess, why wouldn’t you?), the film is symbolic of humanity’s relationship with the Earth. Lawrence’s “Mother” is Mother Earth. Bardem’s “Him” is God. The house they live in represents the planet that Mother is continually trying to improve. But then Him let’s in “Man” (Ed Harris) and “Woman” (Michelle Pfeiffer), followed by their two sons who fight (Brian and Domhnall Gleeson). You can see where this is going. While that may be true of what Aronofsky was trying to say, it isn’t what resonated with me about the movie. In many ways, it reminded me of “Black Swan,” which is about artistic obsession. Him is a poet who needs a muse and, the more that muse suffers while still worshiping him, the more inspired he is. That seems like a very personal story. The things artists/performers do to themselves and those they love runs through much of Aronofsky’s work. So, whatever else this film is about, it is on that level that it most resonated with me. This is a long, winding and sometimes dizzying story. The camera follows Lawrence almost exclusively as she spins in circles within this huge home. The circular nature of the set was brilliant because it allowed for all of that spinning that added to the chaos and dysphoria. As everything spins so utterly out-of-control, it would be easy for the audience to get lost in the spectacle. Seeing Him and Mother as human archetypes of artist and muse (rather than larger Earth/God metaphors) grounded the film for me and made the final scenes more impactful. But, that is just my reading of a film that begs for each viewer to bring her/his own interpretation.  I encourage you to see the film and bring yours.

Wind River

September 4, 2017 at 11:17 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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“Wind River” starts out promising enough. Set in Wyoming in the dead of winter, the film begins with scenes of a stark and imposing landscape. The audience gets a sense of foreboding right off. There is a murder and an outsider comes in to solve it. Sometimes this works well (as in the terrific “Insomnia”) and sometimes not so much (as in “Thunderheart,” which this movie kept reminding me of). “Wind River” lies somewhere in the middle. An FBI agent sent in from Vegas (Elizabeth Olsen) to work alongside the local sheriff (Graham Greene) and a US Fish & Wildlife employee (Jeremy Renner). She’s in over her head but Renner’s character keeps her pointed in the right direction. If you have seen a film like this before, you have essentially seen this film. There are dark people doing dark things but the good guys will stop them. There are some twists and dead ends along the way, a couple of brief outbursts of violence and an ending rich in “justice” (or revenge, anyway). The scenery is visually arresting and helps to create the right mood for a film like this but mood alone can’t sustain you. Writer and director Taylor Sheridan has a great track record. This is the third film he has written. The first two were “Hell or High Water” and “Sicario,” both of which I loved. But this one lacks the humanity of the former and the punch of the latter. Sheridan appears very earnest in wanting to shine his light on the injustices faced by American Indian women but that goal would have been better served by a multi-layered drama, whose focus was on developing complex characters dealing with real life issues, including possibly the one that is the central focus of this film. Instead, what we get is a fairly paint-by-numbers detective thriller, in which two white people swoop in and save the day. The film appears to belie Sheridan’s intent, in that it consistently goes for cheap thrills (tension, violence, revenge catharsis) rather than for empathy or insight. Audiences will leave the theater having no more understanding nor feeling any greater concern for American Indians but they will have had a moderately successful thrill ride.

Dunkirk

August 6, 2017 at 8:19 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk,” opens quietly enough, with young British soldiers strolling through an abandoned French village. But, it doesn’t stay quiet for long and, once the action begins, it does not let up for scarcely a moment of its two hour run time. Nolan pounds us unrelentingly with a sense of chaos and uncertainty. If there is anything truly brilliant about this film, it is the way in which we are made to experience it, rather than simply watch it. The story of the Dunkirk evacuation is told from three perspectives: air, land and sea. In each, we start with three guys (three fighter pilots, three civilians on a boat, three boys at Dunkirk trying to find any way home). Over the film, their stories twist, diverge and come together in a kaleidoscope of ways. Nolan has deliberately told the story out of order and it remains unclear for most of the film where each story fits in the timeline with each other. This confusion for the audience gives us a sense of the confusion at Dunkirk, with nobody aware of what is going on anywhere else. We are forced to abandon a traditional narrative and just take each intense scene within the context of its moment. Nolan also plays brilliantly with the camera. Occasionally, he gives us these vast, sweeping vistas. Often, we have tight camera shots, in the dark, and tilted at strange angles (“why is the ocean running along the right side of the screen?”). We can lose our sense of up/down, day/night in much the same way the poor soldiers did. There are times we watch people scrambling to escape sinking boats and the audience is no more sure of which way is up than the drowning men are. Nolan collaborated again with his favorite composer, Hans Zimmer (“Inception,” “Interstellar”) to create a discordant, driving score that succeeds in capturing the anxiety and madness of what we see on screen. While my favorite performance was the excellent Mark Rylance as the civilian father/boat captain, this was not an actor driven film. The real star here is the story itself. Chaotic, beautiful, unrelenting and poetic. I felt more in the middle of this film than any I have seen in a long time.

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